I’ve started this site with a bunch of tripod articles, so I figured I might as well continue in that trend with a look at the difference between Aluminum, Basalt, and Carbon Fiber tripods. Anyone who’s serious into photography (especially landscape, wildlife, or macro photography, and to a lesser degree, portrait photography) will eventually buy a tripod. It’s a given fact.
However, when you first start looking for a tripod, it’s TOUGH to find the right tripod. There’s seemingly contradictory advice on the web about what tripod you should buy and everyone has their own favorite. Shopping for a tripod is a bit like shopping for a pair of shoes — your particular STYLE determines if the tripod is suitable or not for you.
Now ignoring all the other variables when it comes to looking for tripods, let’s focus on the MAJOR distinction between all tripods: the type of material the tripod is crafted from. By far, this factor will affect the price of the tripod and it’s usability.
Tripods are usually crafted from four materials:
- Wood (now defunct as no one uses these anymore)
- Carbon Fiber
These four materials are quite radically different and WILL affect the tripod’s price, stability, and weight.
These are typically the lowest end tripod material and consequently, the cheapest. You’ll usually find plastic tripods at your local general store (Wall-Mart, Target, Mall Camera Stores, etc).
- They are CHEAP — you can usually buy them for anywhere between 15 dollars for the cheapest ones to $75 for the more expensive ones.
- They are LIGHT — plastic is light
- Less Durable — Plastic Tripods are prone to break in the field.
- Not Very Stable — Plastic, because it can bend, does not make for a very stable tripod. This can effect your image quality, especially if you want to use longer zoom lenses.
My Take on Plastic Tripods
Don’t bother. A plastic tripod, if that’s all you can afford, is better than no tripod. But they are not very stable, break very easily, and are generally more of a pain to use then a help. I really recommend you stay away from them unless you have no other choice.
The next level above plastic tripods would be Aluminum made tripods. Aluminum has the advantage of being both solid and fairly light as metals go, making it a good compromise between weight and cost.
- Stable — Aluminum is a fairly hard metal making it VERY stable. You can use large lenses with little vibration
- Affordable — if you want “the best tripod for your money value-wise”, then I would say that you’re best bet is to go with an Aluminum Tripod: you get quality, stability, and cost.
- You can buy a quality aluminum tripod for between 100-200 dollars, usually. For most people, this makes them pretty affordable.
- Fairly Light — while aluminum is not as light as Basalt or Carbon Fiber or plastic, it’s still not back-breaking heavy. Aluminum tripods will typically be the heaviest tripods
- Heavy — aluminum-based tripods will be the heaviest tripods you can buy. This makes them stable as a rock for their size, but difficult to carry in the field.
- Stable — aluminum tripods are stable, probably the most stable tripods you can buy. The stability comes from the weight, which for some people IS a compromise (and a bad thing).
My Take on Aluminum Tripods
If your budget for a tripod is in the low to mid hundreds, then an aluminum tripod is probably the best you are going to do. If most of your shooting is done in your home studio/office or your backyard or close to your car, then Aluminum tripods are very usable. IF most of your shooting is done on the go (hiking, climbing, outdoors stuff) or you do a lot of travel photography, then Aluminum tripods are too heavy to be practical. They also tend to be not only heavy, but large, making them not very portable.
These tripods are sort of a cross between Aluminum tripods and Carbon fiber tripods, in terms of weight and price. Basalt is a form of volcanic rock.
- 20% lighter than Aluminum-based tripods
- Good stability
- Cheaper than Carbon Fiber
- Not as Stable as CF
- Not as Cheap as Aluminum
My Take on Basalt Tripods
Basalt is really “the poor man’s carbon fiber.” It offers SOME of the features of Carbon Fiber for a cheaper price. My take on Basalt is that if you can only muster up around 300- 500 dollars for a tripod and are unwilling to spend a few hundred more, than go with a Basalt. But really, since you are ALMOST at the price range of a carbon fiber tripod, you might as well take the plunge and just go Carbon Fiber for all the advantages.
Carbon Fiber Tripods
These are the lightest tripods you can buy and offer the best in terms of weight and stability you can get.
- The lightest tripods you can buy
- More resistant to vibrations than other tripod materials
- Very good stability to weight ratio
- More temperature resistant (in the cold, tripod takes longer to “get cold”)
My Take on Carbon Fiber Tripods
These are the best tripods money can buy. The premier carbon fiber brand would be Gitzo Tripods, though there are some good alternatives by companies like Really Right Stuff, Feisol, and Silk (to name a few). You can expect to pay, depending on the brand, anywhere between 250 to 800 dollars. The Gitzo Tripods offer the best in terms of build construction and features, though you will pay a premium for these features.
Carbon Fiber offers the best ratio of weight to stability, with the added bonus of increased vibration dampening (less vibrations transfer through the material which can mean better image quality — something you will likely only ever notice with long telephoto lenses) which can help when you are using really portable tripods since they are so light.
Typically, Carbon Fiber tripods are about half the weight of aluminum. The Gitzo 1541T, for example, weighs just a little over 2lbs, is only 16 inches tall folded (with a ballhead on), and extends over 5 feet. A comparable aluminum tripod would weight around 5lbs – 6lbs.
If you like to do outdoor photography or you travel, hike a lot, then you NEED carbon fiber.
Final Word on Tripod Types
There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to tripods. Just because and ultra expensive 700 dollar carbon fiber is THE BEST tripod money can buy, doesn’t mean it’s more right for you than a $50 dollar cheap plastic tripod. I will say if you are going to be serious about photography for a long time and your shooting style includes the heavy use of a tripod, it’s worth having the best tripod right away, since you will save money. However, you need to buy what you can actually afford.